A yearning for wholeness in local news

When the Daily News, a 99-year-old print tabloid that considers itself New York’s “hometown newspaper,” laid off half its journalists last month, the reaction was swift. The mayor called it a disaster for the city. New York’s governor called it devastating.

Loyal readers and others wondered how they could cope with the loss of local coverage, especially the paper’s role as a watchdog on officialdom.

The public outcry, while not matched by the necessary subscriptions to maintain the newspaper in its old glory, nonetheless revealed just how much consumers of mass media – a term first used for newspapers – still want to feel connected to their hometown and to each other. The reaction showed a continuing need for whole communities to feel … well, whole.

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Robust local journalism has long provided the social glue for a community’s cohesion, even defining its character. It helps mediate the relationship of individuals to local institutions by chronicling the troubles and triumphs of the day. And yet the number of local newspapers has been in steady decline, a result of steep losses in advertising and circulation as Americans rely more on social media for “free” news.

In the past decade, the number of newsroom employees at newspapers has fallen by 45 percent, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center report last month. An increase in similar jobs for digital news outlets – about 6,000 – has been far below what is needed to compensate for the loss of local journalists.

Just seven years ago, famed investor Warren Buffett bought dozens of local newspapers that he considered to be the bedrock of their communities despite competition from digital outlets. Last May, Mr. Buffett acknowledged his disappointment in the investment. “It is very difficult to see … how the print product survives over time,” he said. Yet “the sage of Omaha” is still keeping the papers – which are a small drag on his giant portfolio – because of a strong belief that the significance of daily newspapers to society is “enormous.”

Some historical context might help explain this longing for what local news can do.

Susan Zieger, a professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, writes in a new book, “The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century,” that print was the first form of mass media and that the skyrocketing circulation of newspapers in the 1890s revealed a desire among people to be connected.

By then, Americans were more literate and had more leisure time to read. Ink, paper, and printing presses were cheaper, which led to the birth of mass media. News consumers could compare the cultural norms presented in print and adjust themselves to them. “Suddenly, people have all this information, which parallels our current situation with screens,” she states.

The explosion of print media brought forth powerful yearnings: “To share beliefs and opinions with a large community, to unite with others below the threshold of consciousness, reflected a dream of wholeness through public affect and thought…,” she writes.

While much of America’s mass media are national, it is local news where people can really “dream of wholeness.” And if local news is ever to be revived, it may ride on the coattails of a movement toward “localism,” or more reliance on a local economy, local food, and small communities.

This trend is reflected in the fact that, despite falling trust in many institutions over several decades, Americans remain trusting of their local institutions, according to Gallup polling. One poll last year found 70 percent of people have confidence in their local governments to do the right thing.

Yet according to a new book by scholars Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, “The New Localism,” this go-local movement is not the same as local government. A range of civic groups are coming together with a shared identity to embrace their community. The phenomenon has lately been reported by pundits like Tom Friedman, James Fallows, and David Brooks. In his recent article for The Atlantic, Mr. Fallows writes:

“One to-do step for citizens: Subscribe to local publications while they still exist. A to-do step for plutocrats and philanthropists: View news-gathering as a crucial part of the public infrastructure of this era, just as Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Mellons viewed libraries, museums, and universities as part of the necessary infrastructure of their time.”

Many people with big money, such as Buffett, as well as nonprofit foundations and even the state of New Jersey, are testing new models for viable local journalism. Yet these experiments rely on Americans once again becoming big boosters of local news. The “dream of wholeness” will not disappear.

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